Story Ideas.May 16, 2021
From the Desk of Harriet Tyce.
Whenever I do an event, I wonder if this will be the time I’m asked how I get my ideas. It hasn’t happened yet – maybe it’s perfectly obvious how I get my ideas. I was a criminal barrister, I’ve written two books with criminal barristers at their heart. But I’ve still had to come up with different stories for them, different settings. And even if I know one part of the world, the rest is still a mystery.
Every time I’m confronted with the blank page at the start of a new project, I panic, not sure where I’m going to find inspiration. Every time I approach the end of a draft, I panic again, wondering if I’ll ever be able to think of a new idea.
The thing is, I always do. Inspiration’s to be found everywhere. The books I read, the television shows I watch, the conversations I overhear. The true crime stories I read in the Daily Mail online (they give a lot of detail which isn’t always reported elsewhere). These aren’t the only source, though.
There’s also all the reading I’ve done throughout my life, starting from the very beginning. You might not think the books I read as a child might have relevance to the dark psychological thrillers I write, but if you peel off the skin, dig under the flesh, the story bones have more in common than appear at first glance. It was no surprise to me to discover that the Classic Course at The Novelry, the course where our authors' stories start, begins with a section on fairy tales as 'story starters'.
Fairy tales end with a wedding. The wedding is the goal, the endpoint, the last of the thirty-one stages identified by Vladimir Propp in his Model for the Study of Fairytales. Popular princesses have evolved over the years from the ultra-passivity of Sleeping Beauty – Princess Merida from Brave and Elsa from Frozen to name but a couple of recent examples – but if you were to ask someone for the beats of a fairy story, my bet is that nearly every single person would say that there was a big fat magic wedding at the end.
Psychological thrillers couldn’t be more different. To misappropriate Chris Whitaker’s brilliant title 'We Begin at the End' (an equally brilliant book), they begin at the end. After the confetti’s been thrown, the frilly dress has been folded up into a bag and put away. That’s where the stories of domestic noir start. And while you might not think the genre has much to say to the world of fairy stories, go a little deeper and you will see that the worlds of crime fiction and fairy tales have more parallels than you might imagine.
Take Bluebeard. The prototype domestic noir, seminal to the genre, spawner of numerous retellings, from Jane Eyre to Rebecca to Lolita to The Book of You. Even Stephen King’s The Shining. My first novel, Blood Orange, has more than a nod to it, starting as it does behind a locked door where secret things happen. Bad things. Come to that, so does my second novel The Lies You Told, which features a locked room at its very core.
‘La Barbe Bleu’ was first told by Charles Perrault in Tales of Mother Goose (1697). It’s the story of a man’s courtship and his marriage to a young woman whose desire for wealth conquers her feelings of revulsion for blue beards. He gives the keys to every room in his house, but before going on a journey, tells her that while she can open every other door, she is not to enter one certain little room. What does she do next? What I would do, and most likely you as well. She goes straight to it, opening the door, and finds a pool of blood in which are reflected the bodies of Bluebeard’s dead wives hanging from the wall. Terrified, she drops the key, staining it with blood, and when Bluebeard returns, he sees that she has broken his rule and gone into the forbidden chamber. He’s about to execute her when she’s rescued by her brothers, who ride to her rescue just in time.
This is psychological thriller 101. ‘A story that turns on weighty events in one partner’s past, on the perils of uncovering secrets, and on the quest for intimacy through knowledge’ (Maria Tatar) – these are the beats that reverberate under every good domestic noir.
Let’s have a closer look. Jane Eyre – Jane is repeatedly told by Mr Rochester and Grace Poole that she should keep away from the hidden corridor in which the first Mrs Rochester is housed. Rebecca? The first Mrs de Winter is both locked away as a secret in Maxim’s past and yet haunts every part of Mandalay, kept alive by the sinister Mrs Danvers. As Tatar describes Humbert Humbert, he’s a ‘European bon vivant whose “wives” are all dead by the time he suffers a coronary thrombosis in prison’ arriving in Lolita’s town ‘as a kind of Bluebeard figure who proves fatally seductive to both women residing in the house he enters’.
Moving into contemporary fiction, there are a multitude of novels based explicitly on retellings of the story. The Wikipedia page under Bluebeard shows twelve versions of the story from Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber onwards, and that’s just in literature, mostly stories that feature the word Bluebeard in the title. Then there are the stories that refer only obliquely to the tale, though follow its tropes faithfully enough. Take the film Get Out as an example, with the monstrous Rose as a Bluebeard figure, described by Maria Tatar in an article for Harvard as ‘a monster straight out of our culture’s master horror-narrative, with its classic tropes; a secluded mansion with a dark place inhabited by a brooding homicidal maniac.' Also consider Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian Grey a shadow Bluebeard for our troubled times.
And that’s the point I’m getting at. These stories that we have heard in our childhoods are deep in our bones. As source material for our own work, they operate on a multitude of levels. We can take them directly and appropriate them for our own, as has been done to great acclaim by writers like John Connelly (The Book of Lost Things) or Sarah Pinborough (Poison, Charm, Beauty). Or we can approach them with our eyes half-shut, borrowing core aspects without adhering religiously to each beat.
Vanessa Savage, author of the crime novel The Woods, makes the point in a recent blog post that stripped of their magic, what you’re left with in many fairy stories is a classic crime story. She breaks down the story of the Little Mermaid thus:
‘She gives up everything for her obsession, and he falls in love elsewhere, she becomes unhinged to the point of wanting to kill the man she claims to love… This is the perfect psychological thriller.’
So fairy stories are really crime fiction. Crime fiction leans heavily on fairy stories. As Marina Warner puts it, ‘Working with a plot, a character, images and motifs already familiar to the intended reader or audience gives freedom to retaliate, protest and reinvent.’ Every retelling is a new story that brings in new readers, casts new light onto the subject.
It’s not just Bluebeard, not by any stretch of the imagination. Take the idea of changelings. Sophie Hannah explores this trope in her breakthrough psychological thriller Little Face, in which the mother Sophie is presented with a baby that she swears is no longer her own. Joe Thorne’s The Hiding Place explores the return of a missing child when the older brother finds himself terrified of the girl who has returned, supposedly his sister. Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist both dive deep into the idea of demonic possession of a baby. Little Darlings by Melanie Golding plays explicitly with the concept to terrifying effect.
The trope of the woods as a dark place of danger and transformation cuts through both fairy stories and crime. Think about John Yorkes’ seminal work on narrative, Into The Woods. The journey through the woods is how the character will find themselves, either for better or worse. And what more classic a fairy tale dilemma than losing a child in a wood, one of a parent’s greatest fears? When writing Blood Orange, I did this quite unintentionally, when I set a scene up in Hampstead and had the child Matilda go missing in a game of hide and seek. I wasn’t thinking about the tropes I was exploiting – I wanted to create a moment of maximum drama so that tensions within the protagonist’s marriage could be brought to a head.
‘A crisis moment always embodies the worst possible consequence of the decision taken when the initial dramatic explosion occurred… this decision inexorably brings the character face to face with their worst fear: the obstacle that is going to force them to face up to their underlying flaw.’ John Yorke
In my novel, Blood Orange, Alison’s worst fear is that she is going to lose her daughter, although it takes actually losing Matilda for her to confront this fear and face the truth of the situation.
And temptation – the compulsion that drives us all to break a command. Don’t open the chamber, Bluebeard’s wife is told. Don’t touch the spinning wheel, the prohibition given to Sleeping Beauty. Alison knows she shouldn’t have more than one drink at the start of Blood Orange. In The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty, the protagonist finds a letter written by her husband, only to be opened in the event of his death. Even though he’s very much alive, she opens it, and chaos duly ensues. All of them transgressive women, breaching the interdict that’s been laid upon them.
You can take this wider still. One of the stock features of domestic noir, of psychological thrillers, is that of the woman who won’t do what she’s told, who won’t conform, who isn’t a good enough mother, who isn't a chaste enough wife. In a great piece in The Atlantic in 2015, Koa Beck writes:
'These ladies scheme, swear, rage, transgress, deviate from convention—and best of all, they seldom genuinely apologize for it. It’s the literary equivalent of the feminist catchphrase originated by Amy Poehler: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” More than being “unlikable,” these female characters directly challenge the institutions and practices frequently used to measure a woman’s value: marriage, motherhood, divorce, and career. They defy likability in their outlandish occupation of the roles to which women are customarily relegated—mother, wife, daughter—resisting sexist mythologies and social pressures.'
From some of the reviews I’ve received, it’s clear that Alison’s transgressions, her failure to resist temptation, can cause readers to feel ‘morally distanced’ from her. That was a comment we actually received from one potential publisher. But I see her breaking of the rules as the thing that brings her character alive in all its glorious, flawed humanity. And let’s face it, if Bluebeard’s wife had done what she was told, there’d be no story!
As we write, we’re unconscious most of the time of the material that we’re exploiting, building on. Making our own. Sometimes it’s direct, which can bring huge disappointment. I woke once with a brilliant plot in my head, writing it down eagerly. It took a couple of hours for me to realise I’d regurgitated Gone Girl in its entirety. This kind of theft is clearly not on. But all the years that we’ve spent reading, being told stories – these clearly leave their mark.
Inspiration can be found practically everywhere. It might look like a children’s story, but children have less fear than us, they are more able to look directly at the heart of good and evil, calling it out for what it is. Children’s stories are dark as anything.
'When I allude to “The Little Mermaid” or “Bluebeard” or “Cinderella” we know where we are. This knowledge excites a desire to know more and know it differently.' Marina Warner.
Whether children’s or domestic noir, horror or thriller, when the story begins a familiarity resonates deep inside us as a reader, a frisson, which conversely frees us up to hear what new approach is about to be taken.
As Veronica Henry said in her blog for us at The Novelry, it's the challenge to write something that’s the same, but different. This isn’t a challenge just for an author writing their next book, it’s a challenge for us all, to catch hold of the old tropes, the repeating motifs, and make them new, make them our own, using the same notes, but playing a new tune.
We should never be scared that our inspiration will run out, that we won’t ever have another idea again. The next story? It's deep in our bones.
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